Aging, Loyalty and the Existentialist Hero in Touchez Pas Au Grisbi by Guy Savage
“I’ll never be in your shoes, knucklehead.”
Aging and betrayal will throw a wrench into any criminal career. While aging is inevitable, loyalty amongst thieves and establishing a network of reliable friends are crucial elements for survival. Touchez Pas Au Grisbi (Hands Off The Loot) a 1954 flawless French film noir from director Jacques Becker confronts the issues of aging and loyalty head-on through the life of world-weary, middle-aged gangster Max (Jean Gabin)—a seasoned criminal and Existentialist protagonist who faces a crisis. He’s pulled off his last job, netted 50 million in gold bars from a robbery, and now all that’s left is a peaceful retirement. But Max’s enemies have other plans….
When the film begins, Max and his long-time associate Riton (Rene Dary) are out for a night on the town with their girlfriends Lola (Dora Doll) and Josy (Jeanne Moreau). Max moves in a unique world—frequenting restaurants, clubs and hotels that cater almost exclusively to the criminal crowd. In Max’s sphere, he has a certain reputation and is well respected. The evening begins at a restaurant that is closed to outsiders but full of gangsters. A group of wandering “squares” discovers that they are unable to get a table and are quickly encouraged to go elsewhere. While Josy and Lola want the night to continue, Max, who seems worn with his own affluence, makes it clear that he’d rather be in bed sleeping: “after midnight, I always feel like I’m doing overtime.”
Lola and Josy are dancers at a small cheesy nightclub owned and operated by Max’s friend, Pierrot (Paul Frankeur) also known as ‘Fats.’ After leaving the restaurant, Max and Riton take Lola and Josy over to the club. Max is clearly the power figure in the group, and uninterested in camouflaging his boredom, he’s capable of silencing the others with just one look. Josy, Lola and Riton watch Max’s expressions to gauge his mood, hoping to pick up cues for behavior. With a jaded eye, Max watches the club’s clientele. He’s not enjoying himself; he’s just going through the motions.
Immaculately groomed, laconic and self-contained, Max could pass as a well-heeled businessman. Treated by his acquaintances with obsequious respect and admiration, Max holds court wherever he goes, but on those rare occasions when he speaks, any illusion that Max is a businessman is shattered. He’s a cold, calculating gangster—one of the best in his profession. But Max is aging, and some of his young rivals hope that Max is slipping.
Complications begin to arise in Max’s life at the nightclub when he’s asked to “referee a spat” between Fats and Angelo (Lino Ventura), a gangster who provides narcotics to nightclub patrons. Angelo wants to place his man Ramon in the club to sell to users, but Fats objects. Fats doesn’t like Ramon, but perhaps he also feels that Angelo is out of line. Max’s role as “referee” creates a subtle, symbolic power statement. Fats takes his orders from Max—not Angelo. And Max decides to offer the job to his man, Marco (Michel Jourdan) instead. As far as Max and Fats are concerned, the matter is closed.
Film noir sometimes creates male characters who lead impeccable lives but who are led off the straight and narrow by the femme fatales they meet. Two-timing Josy comes closest to the definition of the ‘bad’ woman in the film, and while her devious ways may fool Riton, Max doesn’t have any time for her games. When it comes to women, there’s not an ounce of sentimentality in Max. In fact, he warns Riton “start spoiling a broad, and she’ll take off.” Some film reviewers argue that Max is a gentleman, a romantic, but I’d argue that Max’s true friendships and loyalties are kept for men while the women he uses are interchangeable.
At first glance, Max may seem to be a ladies’ man. He seems to have women stashed all over Paris, and his fellow gangsters admire his sexual appetite, wondering to themselves ‘how does he do it?’ He’s careful, however, to make sure he has a woman placed strategically where he needs one—Fats’s nightclub, the office of the fence, Oscar (Paul Ottely) and a fancy society dame he can use to decorate his arm for a night out on the town when he’s in the mood. In one great scene, Max visits the flat of Betty (Marilyn Buferd), a woman who’s obviously socially a step above the other women in Max’s life--Josy, Nana (Lucilla Solivani) and Hughette (Delia Scala). Betty calls him into her bedroom and asks him if he loves her. He hesitates, lights a cigarette and tells her “just a second” before he joins her in bed. This small but telling, carefully crafted moment reveals that Max is not a man to be carried away with the passion of the moment. He’s cautious, calculated and methodical—from his criminal career to the women he selects. There are no mistakes and no accidents. Max always keeps women in their place, and unlike Riton, he never makes the fatal mistake of trusting them.
If Max has an Achilles’ heel, it is his long-term relationship with Riton. Angelo knows that when you’re a friend of Max’s, you’re a friend “for life.” Everyone in Max’s circle understands they can count on Max, but can he count on them? And it’s through Riton that Angelo calculates a powerful blow against Max.
Touchez Pas Au Grisbi, based on a novel by Albert Simonin, is a marvelous example of classic French noir, and the role of Max fits veteran actor, WWII tank commander Jean Gabin like a glove. Filmed in gorgeous black and white, and released by Criterion in 2005, most of the scenes take place at night. Shadows on faces and shadows on the wall underscore this atmospheric film and the shady activities everyone’s engaged in—bank robbery, fencing stolen goods, narcotics distribution, murder, betrayal and revenge.
As the film’s tension builds to its startling, violent crescendo, Touchez Pas Au Grisbi becomes not just a story of how Max defends his turf, but also a fascinating study of its Existentialist main character. The film begins with impeccably dressed Max bored to death in a nightclub where he plays escort to his bimbo girlfriend. This is a role that Max does not enjoy, and he watches older men making idiots of themselves with young girls. He rues the position that he finds himself in, remarking to Riton that in the good old days, they would be at home waiting for their women to bring home the loot for them. This hint of past days of pimping and prostitution has been replaced with the veneer of respectability and affluence, and now in Max’s late middle age, he finds his power under assault while Riton is cuckolded.
After a narrow escape from death, Max sheds his bored bourgeois persona as he morphs into the perfect Existentialist hero, embodying Sartre’s edict that “Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself.” Sartre argues “the first effect of existentialism is that it puts every man in possession of himself as he is, and places the entire responsibility for his existence squarely upon his own shoulders.” And we see this clearly in Max as he awakens from his inactivity created by affluence and society and launches back into action. Max’s well-heeled patina is rapidly stripped away to reveal a methodical crime baron who’s in his element when he’s at war with his enemies and defending his turf.
One of the greatest and most revealing scenes in the film shows Max taking Riton to a secret, safe hideaway that’s equipped with food, blankets and even pajamas. After recouping a stash of machine guns, it becomes clear that retirement brings a lifestyle Max despises. For Max, crime is not just about wealth accumulation; he’s a consummate professional, and it’s only in a criminal life that Max is in his element taking care of loyalties and obligations—taking care of business.